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Snowden's Decision Isn't a Surprise, But His Reasons Are

At five p.m. Moscow time, a group of Russian human rights workers and parliamentarians were escorted through the passport control at Sheremetyevo airport and gathered in a room where NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the stubble on his cheeks doing little to add gravity to his sad, boyish face, read a prepared statement to them. 

"Hello," he began. "My name is Ed Snowden. A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone's communications at any time." He went on to outline the various American and international laws and treaties that he believes the NSA's broad scythe undercuts, including the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution, and Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He even cited the conclusions of the Nuremberg tribunals. "I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg in 1945," he said. "'Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.'" This is why, he said, he leaked, before clarifying that he was not a spy and had not collaborated with any foreign government. He also excoriated the U.S. for putting him on a no-fly list and for twisting arms all over the world to make sure that no one grants him asylum, which he called "historically disproportionate aggression." Then he stated that he would again apply for asylum in Russia, the only place he said he felt safe, and live there until he could get to Latin America. 

The scene at the airport, according to the journalists elbowing each other for scraps of information leaking from that room, was chaotic. "I've never seen anything like it in my life," one Russian journalist, who had seen quite a bit in his life, told me.

And that is a major coup for the Obama administration. The more the Snowden scene looks like a circus, or an action movie, the less people pay attention to the information that Snowden unleashed, the less people engage in the "dialogue" about a security apparatus run completely amok that Obama said he was so interested in having. No one, for example, is talking about Snowden's Wednesday revelations that Microsoft is actively cooperating with the NSA, ushering them past the wall that encrypts Outlook communications. Instead, everyone's talking about how Snowden "chose" to seek asylum in Russia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, countries that routinely violate their citizens' human rights and where freedom of the press either doesn't exist or is well on its way to the graveyard. This despite the fact that it is the unbelievable and unseemly pressure the U.S. has applied to countries all over the world in order to assure this outcome, to make sure that Snowden doesn't look like a hero or even a whistleblower, but a hypocrite.

I had a hunch early on that Snowden would end up in Russia, that the Russians would make him into a martyr, and this has happened, but not in the way I had imagined. Russian television has indeed taken up Snowden's cause, highlighting the obvious inconsistency in America lecturing the world on democracy that Snowden represents. After the meeting in Sheremetyevo, Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian parliament and a man with close ties to Vladimir Putin, said that it was Russia's duty not to turn over a man that could face the death penalty in the U.S. (Russia, ironically enough, does not have capital punishment.)

What I thought would happen was that Russia—well, Putin—would relish the opportunity to piss off the U.S. Instead, this has become a giant headache for Putin, who said that the only condition on which Snowden's asylum request would be granted would be if he agreed to "stop harming our American partners," a condition Putin's spokesman reiterated today. The fact that these American partners have backed Snowden into such a corner that he is said to have basically accepted this condition—all leaks, he reportedly said, are already in the past—is a pretty incredible turn of events. I thought Snowden would be forced to stay in Russia because of Russia's orneriness, not because of American bullying over someone Obama dismissively referred to as "a 29-year-old hacker." (He then, of course, did scramble a jet, fearing that Snowden had stashed away on the Moscow-Caracas flight of Venezuela's president.)

I wish I hadn't been wrong on this count, because this is far more embarrassing, as is the fact that Obama can turn the world upside-down for "a 29-year-old hacker," but can't summon the political muscle, even over four members of his party, to pass a simple gun control measure that 90 percent of the American public supports.